The brick building inside the fence was old and plain, much like the undercover cops who had approached her table at CJ’s Bar several months ago. Before charging her with underage alcohol possession, they had spoken calmly and eyed her as blankly as the black, impenetrable windows of this building did now. She stood on the curb outside the chain link fence in downtown Bradford City. Her probation officer had assigned her to New Beginnings for the next eight Saturdays. She looked at the papers to make sure she had the right address. There was nothing to identify the building as a shelter for abused women aside perhaps from the curlicues of barbed wire that decorated the top of the fence. It stood across the street from an empty building with a street number not far off from one she’d been given. She rang the buzzer on the gate next to a speaker.
A raspy voice sounded through the speaker. “Who is it?”
“Whitney Raines. Here for my community service.” She made an effort to keep the irritation out of her voice, but on this October Saturday morning, she wanted to be elsewhere. She waited for an answer from a metal box decorated with white bird droppings. A buzzer sounded. She pulled the gate open.
“Please pull the door shut behind you,” the voice said.
At the front door, Whitney went through the process again before finally entering the shelter. Inside, she met a smiling lady in her fifties with a curly gray hairdo.
“I’m Marion. I understand that you’ll be helping us out.”
Marion wore pleated jeans and a sleeveless blouse. She was skinny, except for the pale flap of skin that swung under her arm when she offered her hand to Whitney.
Whitney shook her hand. The rasp had not been the speaker box, but Marion’s actual voice.
“That seems to be the case.” Whitney realized too late that she sounded rude. Marion’s smile disappeared. “A good attitude will help.” She pointed to a chair. “If you’ll have a seat. I need to finish up with someone else.”
Whitney sat down and stared at the walls. A good attitude. She had a good attitude, all right. If it wasn’t for her stupid age, she thought, she wouldn’t be sitting there looking at ugly brown paneling from the seventies. The night in the restaurant had just been bad luck.
Whitney was nineteen. Lisa was twenty-one. They had a routine. Whitney went to the bathroom. Lisa ordered for both of them. The waiter checked Lisa’s license and brought them Coronas. Whitney came back to the table. Both pushed limes down the necks of the bottles before clinking them together. They drank. But then, the undercover officers approached and flipped out badges. They asked for Whitney’s identification. She didn’t know what else to do but show it to them. The waiter was called over for a discussion. The officers walked Whitney outside, just as Evan, Whitney’s boyfriend, came inside to meet them. Evan hadn’t even looked at her. Acted like he didn’t know her. Lisa followed Whitney outside to wait while the cops wrote out a summons.
One sip of beer earned Whitney a charge, a trip to the courthouse, probation, and community service. At the probation office, Whitney lobbied for work at an animal shelter. The probation officer, mid-forties, round glasses, and too much moustache, thought it more suitable that she do her time at New Beginnings. At nineteen, Whitney was young enough to be charged with underage alcohol possession, but old enough to go through the whole process without having to inform her parents. Whenever Whitney had an appointment, she told them she was with Lisa, who had gotten off with only a lengthy speech from one of the cops about the dangers of buying alcohol for minors.
Whitney opened her eyes and checked her surroundings before reaching into her pocket where she had two ten-milligram Hydrocodone tablets. The probation officer had said she could be drug tested during her six months of probation, but she doubted it. Evan, her boyfriend, had been on probation before. He told her it was a bluff, that it was cheaper to tell someone they could be tested than to actually test them, the possibility being the deterrent. Whitney slid down in the chair, rested her head against the wall, put one of the dry pills in her mouth, and closed her eyes. Marion had closed the door to her office, but Whitney could still hear most of what was said while the white particles of the pill soaked into the soft tissue under her tongue.
“We need to go over your rights and responsibilities,” Marion was saying. “We prefer to think of this as a place of empowerment rather than…”
“Can he get in here? I know you have a fence, but he can get in anywhere.”
“Mrs. Trenton, I assure you. We’ve never had anyone break in.”
“He could be the first.”
“Try to calm down. Let’s look over this packet. Have you read the …”
Whitney sensed something and opened her eyes. A thin woman with dyed black hair and and gritty gray roots had joined her in the foyer. The woman wore green tennis shoes and an oversized T-shirt that said, Olson’s Hotdogs.
“Hi,” Whitney said.
The woman didn’t answer. She looked Whitney over and left the foyer.
Whitney wished she could text Lisa, but the probation officer had told her not to carry her phone. Whitney was counting on that pill to kick in before she had to interact with these people. Her brother had come back from an army tour in the Middle East minus one leg and in a lot of pain. While he worked his way off the pain killers, Whitney had skimmed off the top of the orange, white-labeled bottles. Just before her brother moved back into a place of his own, Whitney saw him toss the bottle in the kitchen trash can. Whitney had retrieved it later, disappointed to find only three left. The orange container listed two more refills, so she had called them in on the phone and then gone and picked up first one, and then a second, no questions asked. She had been surprised at how easy it was. When Whitney told Lisa about it, she learned that Lisa got similar medication regularly from her grandmother, who went to the Veteran’s Administration for her aches and pains. Lisa’s grandmother was forgetful and left the little oblong pills all over the house. Lisa picked them up like a vacuum cleaner. Lisa and Whitney both enjoyed the brief euphoria on occasion but limited themselves, assuring one another that it was safe, as long as they restricted themselves on their use.
The lady in Marion’s office shouted. “Are you for real?”
“It probably looks like a lot, but those who come here are often in a strained emotional state and…”
“This looks like the military. Are you telling me I just got out from under my man and now I got to do all this? A curfew. No dating while I’m in the shelter. Ladies on the single side can’t visit ladies on the married side. Wear shoes or thick socks. No letters to jail. No food outside of the kitchen. I got to give you guys my medicine so you can give it back to me. Why the hell…”
“Ma’am. You need to think about what we have in here. Many of these women are frightened. We have to keep some kind of order.”
Whitney felt the tiny sensation of her pill beginning to work.
“Mrs. Trenton, you’re safe in here, and we want to help you. I need you to sign the agreement, the confidentiality part, too. You don’t tell anyone what our address is, or who else you meet in here. If you don’t agree to the terms, you can’t stay.”
The woman was quiet, and then Whitney heard a couple of sobs.
“I know this is difficult,” Marion said. “But, your child is safe in here. Sign the form so we can go get Dereck from the daycare area and I’ll show you your room.”
Shortly, the door to Marion’s office opened. The crier was a large lady with dark skin and mild acne on her cheeks. She wore jeans and a low cut shirt. A thin gold chain around her neck disappeared in her cleavage. Despite the redness and tears, a brief glance at Whitney revealed stunning brown eyes, large and liquid.
“If you’ll go on to the daycare room, I’ll be back there in a minute.” Marion turned to Whitney. “Are you ready?”
Whitney’s mood was beginning to improve. “Yes, ma’am,” she said brightly.
Whitney followed Marion down a hall and past a large living area filled with women and children. Cartoons played softly on the television. Two barely teenage girls sat on one end of a sofa looking at magazines.
Marion stopped at the doorway. “Are all the chores done?”
Five ladies and one child got up to do something.
Marion turned back to Whitney. “I need to see your ID before we get started.”
Whitney got out her ID. She couldn’t help smiling.
“Is something funny?” Marion asked.
“I was thinking that it was my ID that got me here in the first place.”
“Well. Try to get something out of this, would you?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Whitney smiled again. Her sensitivity to negativity was wearing off by the minute.
Marion led her into a large room with a musty smell, a washer, a dryer, and endless boxes and shelves. “I’m going to have you work on donations until it’s time to do lunch,” she said. “I need you to go through these boxes. You can see where most of the supplies go by the lists on the shelves. When you come to clothes, shake them out, and separate them into lights and darks. You know how to wash clothes, don’t you?”
“Sure,” Whitney said.
“Wash a load, then put them in the dryer and start the next load. While they’re washing and drying, keep separating out supplies. When the clothes get done, separate them by size and gender. You have any questions, come look for me.”
Whitney was completely relaxed by now. She was thankful they had decided to limit the pills to keep their tolerance down. She had brought one more for the afternoon, bargaining with herself that she wouldn’t take another until her biology lab on Wednesday. She opened the closest donation box, filled a washer with clothes, and started it.
The only reason Whitney was in college was because her parents had offered not only to pay her tuition, but to give her two hundred dollars for every class she passed. Her brother had left for the army the year before she’d finished high school. Her father was a pediatrician, and her mother was a bank manager. Just after her graduation, her brother had been shipped home in his new condition and Whitney had lost what little interest she’d had in college. All she wanted to do was hang out with Lisa, go to clubs, and get high. High school had been suffocating, and the sight of her brother’s missing leg made her want to live it up. Just in case. When her parents offered her the money, though, she couldn’t resist. Once she read the course options for a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies, which she thought read like a degree for people who didn’t know what to do with themselves, she registered.
Whitney went to work on a box of expired bags of flour. She found the flour shelf and lined the bags up, each poofing a white cloud as she set it down. She turned around to find the lady in the hotdog shirt standing just inside the door of the supply room.
“Hi. How are you?” Whitney asked.
The lady’s dyed black hair was in a loose ponytail now. She didn’t answer.
A mouse ran out of a box and under a shelf.
“Did you see that?” Whitney asked.
The lady held a wadded up T-shirt in one hand. She looked at the shelves where the mouse had disappeared and then back at Whitney.
“I’m new,” Whitney said. “I’ll be helping out here for a couple months.” She felt proud of herself for trying to make conversation with this silent lady.
The woman looked over her shoulder back down the hall, and then she moved to a shelf beside Whitney. She took a bottle of Listerine and wrapped it up in her shirt. Then she was gone.
Whitney stood looking at the empty doorway. Was mouthwash so rationed around here that they felt the need to steal it? She went back to work on another box of clothing. The contents were, for the most part, unimpressive. Then she came to a box with two pairs of Hugo Boss Sunglasses, several Michael Korrs’ bags, and some Armani blouses. She didn’t have the heart to mix those in with the junk, so she pushed it to the side and turned around to see a girl in the doorway.
“What are you in for?” the girl asked. She was Hispanic, taller than Whitney by a foot, and twice as wide. One ear had six green-gold hoops. Soft folds of skin bulged out of a spaghetti-strapped top. She picked at a fake metallic green fingernail that hung loose.
“Excuse me?” Whitney said.
“I said what are you in for? Can’t you hear?”
“I’m just here to help out for a while.”
“Ain’t nobody coming in here to help out, mi amor. You either hiding or you was sent. And I know you ain’t hiding, because the hiding people ain’t allowed in this room. So what you in for?” She successfully removed the loose fingernail and put it in her pocket.
“Underage alcohol possession,” Whitney said. “What do you mean only the sent people are allowed in here?” Whitney asked. “What about that lady with the long black hair? Why doesn’t she speak?”
“Shit. Dreama? Dream On is more like it. She hasn’t said a word since she came here three weeks ago. She’s fruitier than… wait. She was in here?” The girl’s head swung toward the shelf where the mouthwash was lined up in green, yellow, and pink bottles. “God damn it.” She turned and walked down the hall. “Marion! Marion, that fruit fly done took another bottle of mouthwash. She drinking it again. Marion!”
Whitney stood there, wondering if Dreama would be back to get her. She pulled out her last Hydrocodone and swallowed it dry, seconds before Marion came in the room.
“I hear you met Dreama and Fatima,” Marion said. She looked around approvingly at the work Whitney had done. “You let me know if anyone else comes in here. Dreama’s a drinker, and she can’t have any in here, so she goes for the Oral-B and the Listerine. Got to keep an eye on her. Fatima’s the tattle tale. Thank God for tattle tales, or there wouldn’t be any mouthwash. Or lotion. Or cookies.”
She pointed toward the Micheal Kors bags and the Hugo Boss sunglasses. “Bring that box over here. We’ll use those as prizes for game night.” She took out her keys and unlocked a cabinet in the back. Whitney set the box inside. She couldn’t imagine what game night in here might be like.
Marion locked the cabinet. “We need to get started on lunch,” she said.
Whitney followed Marion into a metallic kitchen full of stoves, refrigerators, and an industrial-sized dishwasher. In the back, a little curled over lady was dumping an enormous can of green beans into a pot.
“This is Reba,” Marion said. “Just do whatever she tells you.”
“Gladly!” Whitney said. Then she tried to look serious.
Marion looked at her. “Listen,” she said. “Sarcasm is as bad as attitude. Just do your time, and keep your head down.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Whitney nodded vigorously.
Reba was watching her, one eyebrow raised.
Marion looked at Whitney for a second longer. Then she shook her head and walked back toward the hall, mumbling. Whitney wasn’t sure if she said, “she’s all yours,” or “on all fours.” Either way, she was feeling pretty friendly at the moment.
“So, Reba,” she said. “How are you? You’re the cook? Okay. What can I do?”
“Just make the tea and try not to get in my way.”
“Absolutely. That Fatima is kind of funny, huh?”
“Funny? If that’s your idea of funny. Have you ever made tea before?”
“Sure. No. What do I do?”
“See that pot of hot water? Get twelve pitchers out of that cabinet over there and fill each one half way up.”
“Now we’re cooking,” Whitney said.
Reba glared. “Tea bags are over there. Cut off the tags, and put six bags in each half-full pitcher.”
“Got it.” Whitney went to work.
Reba, a tiny little old woman, placed huge trays of the cheap brand of macaroni and cheese and sweet potatoes in the ovens. Then she opened another oven and checked some kind of meat. The smell was funny, as if the meat was bad. Maybe they got expired meat in addition to the other expired products in the store room, Whitney thought.
“So, Dreama drinks the mouthwash around here, huh?” Whitney asked.
“That’s generally not something we discuss.”
“I hear she doesn’t speak.”
“Not yet. She’s had a hard time.”
“Do you think she can’t, or just doesn’t want to?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Fatima hardly looks old enough to be married. Is she a wife or a child, or both?”
Reba stopped what she was doing. “What’s your name?” she said.
“Whitney, we don’t discuss the clients here. We just try to provide for them.”
Reba had soft white hair. She moved slowly around the kitchen, but she got things done. She gave instructions. Whitney stirred beans, finished the tea, and covered pans of food with aluminum foil. Reba took the large hunk of meat out of the oven and sliced it. Whitney felt glad that she didn’t have to eat there, and then it occurred to her that she might. The probation officer had not mentioned a lunch break, nor had Marion. They loaded everything onto carts and wheeled these into an eating area just as women began to come in.
“Here.” Reba handed Whitney some tongs and a large spoon. “Serve the sweet potatoes and rolls.”
Something about standing in front of this room full of people, holding the large utensils and being in control of the food, felt good to Whitney. I got this, she thought. She watched Dreama get in line, and Fatima, and the other woman whom Whitney had listened to in the office. The children had been seated and told to stay put. One lady carried an infant. The noise level rose. A tall woman near the end of the line stood very still and straight. Whitney noticed her clothes and her jewelry. Her face was made up nicely, skin was moisturized, nails done with class, not trashy. That seemed odd to Whitney. She looked the lady over for bruises and thought she saw one on her neck.
“What you lookin’ at?” Fatima said. “You see somebody else that thinks they’re took good for this place? Give me two rolls.”
Reba jumped in. “One roll, Fatima. This whole room gotta eat.”
Whitney put one roll and one sweet potato on Fatima’s plate. Then she pretended to organize the other potatoes so she didn’t have to make eye contact.
“All right, new girl” Fatima said.
Whitney felt there was a challenge coming her way for no reason other than her being here. She watched Fatima sit down at a table of women without children. Whitney wondered how someone as tough as Fatima could be abused. For that matter, she couldn’t imagine how anyone could get into that kind of relationship, much less stay in it.
By now the lady with the nice clothes was in front of Reba. She passed on the meat, but accepted green beans, a potato, and a roll.
“Thank you,” the lady said.
Whitney watched her go sit by herself at a far table. She felt sorry for her. The lady was more alone in here than anyone. Even the silent Dreama seemed somehow a part of the group.
“Okay,” Reba said finally. “We’re through serving. You can get a plate and sit down.”
Whitney watched while Reba took a plate for herself and then sat down with the mother of the tiny infant. She took the infant from the mother and held her, giving the mother a break. Reba took small bites of food in between patting and talking to the baby. Marion did not appear. Whitney was not hungry and she certainly did not want to eat here. She looked out at the tables. Fatima was watching her. Whitney still had another couple of hours on her tiny high. She took a plate, chose a safe looking sweet potato and a roll, and went over to where the classy lady sat by herself. Whitney saw that it was a bruise on the lady’s neck. They ate in silence.
After helping Reba clean up, Whitney went back to work in the donation room. She wished she’d brought more pills and wondered what Evan was doing today. Their communication had lessened over the past couple of weeks. He wasn’t the most attractive guy she had ever dated, but he was the most fun. She had told him about her and Lisa’s pills. She had known he wouldn’t care. Evan smoked an occasional joint. The last time they hung out, he had mentioned that he’d been selling prescription pills. For some reason, that crossed a line in Whitney’s mind. Evan had argued that there wasn’t much difference in doing and selling. Whitney argued with herself that Evan’s parents weren’t paying him to go to school. He worked part-time at an auto parts store and, so far, had avoided college. Maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal. But still, selling seemed seedier, more involved than she liked. What she did with the pills was just recreation. Little highs. She didn’t want to think about Evan selling pills or owing money, or trashy druggies looking to him for their supply.
Marion came back to tell her she could take a break and pointed her toward the central courtyard which was a small square of grass enclosed by the building’s walls. Along with a picnic table, there were two plastic chairs and a small plastic slide with stairs. Dreama sat at the table with a book in front of her. Whitney sat down across from her.
“Do you mind if I sit here?” Whitney didn’t expect an answer, but she felt obligated to ask.
Dreama looked up at her, still expressionless, and then back at the page. She was reading Fifty Shades of Grey.
“Just so you know,” Whitney said. “I wasn’t the one that told on you earlier.” Whitney could feel the Hydrocodone’s effects dissipating. “You know, I think I get it. The whole not talking thing.”
Dreama didn’t look up. They sat in silence. Whitney looked at her watch just as Marion stuck her head out the door.
“Whitney, if you’ll go pick up trash in the front lawn where the residents aren’t allowed to go, after you’re done, you can call it a day.”
Whitney’s mood was headed downhill fast. Her face must have shown it, because Marion spoke sharply.
“Remember, I still have to sign your form if you want credit for your time,” she said.
“See you later,” she said to Dreama.
Marion gave Whitney garbage bags and thick plastic gloves and told her to use the buzzer on the front door when she was done. Whitney stepped outside into the front yard where people must have gone to the trouble to stick things through the holes in the chain link fence or throw it over the top. Whitney was bent over, picking up wrappers and Popsicle sticks when she heard the sound of shoes scuffing toward her. Dilapidated shoes. Toes out the front shoes. Scuff. Scuff. The pants above the shoes were loose, the ends frayed and the denim grayed. The face was unshaven. Behind this man came two more in similar condition, walking down the street slowly, deliberately. Across the street, four more men stepped off the curb and crossed toward her. The sun was low in the sky and glaring. Who were they? And why were they coming this way?
Whitney held up a hand to her forehead to shield the glare. She felt lightheaded and held onto the fence with one hand. The fence vibrated as one of the men leaned against it and adjusted his backpack. Five more people appeared farther down the street, and then more behind them. The light was too bright. She felt hot. There were scraggly people coming from all directions. One person yelled. Another sang a strange song that ended with “ya, ya hey.” Whitney backed away from the fence, ran to the front door, and pressed the buzzer repeatedly.
Marion came to the front door. “What’s wrong?”
“Look!” Whitney pointed toward the men now passing the front gate. Several looked in Whitney’s direction, and then looked away.
“Quit pointing,” Marion said. “They’re on their way to the soup kitchen three blocks down. It’s the five o’clock meal. Come inside and I’ll fill out your form.”
Whitney stood in the doorway, adrenaline subsiding, relief moving in, and then embarrassment. Before closing the door, she looked out at the street. It was empty now except for an orange cat on the opposite curb. Sunlight reflected off a brown beer bottle caught in the gutter. The breeze made the gate clang lightly within its buzzer lock, and Whitney thought about her brother. He had told her about the meals in the chow hall when he was in boot camp. He’d said that for trainees, those meals were the shortest, fastest, most nerve wracking, hand-stuffing-the-mouth-grab-and-run meals ever eaten, but because they were so hungry, those meals were the best four minutes of their days.
Whitney watched the orange cat sniff the air. It turned its head in the direction of the soup kitchen and started walking.
Whitney’s second visit to New Beginnings began after lunch the next Saturday.
“Do you remember how to use the dishwasher?” Reba asked.
“You know I do!” Whitney smiled at her.
Reba ignored her. “Wear the gloves and don’t get burned.”
Whitney had come prepared this time. She’d eaten a small lunch and taken a Hydrocodone exactly one hour before she walked up to the speaker box on the street. She had two more in her pocket.
It had been a good week. She’d purposefully not taken any pills all week, even for the bio lab that she’d been dreading, though she’d ended up walking off from the assignment. The small white piglet they were to learn anatomy from was too much, the scalpels, the cutting, the pale skin almost the same color as her own. After a later discussion, her teacher allowed her to substitute a book assignment. Whitney had seen Evan twice. They hadn’t discussed his shady side job, but he had taken her to an expensive dinner at Luigi’s last night. Whitney’s parents were none the wiser about her probation. Her brother had been fitted for a new prosthetic leg and was even working now.
Fatima joined her in the kitchen. “Hey, Whittles.”
Whitney didn’t hate the nickname Fatima had come up with.
“Why you dress like that?” Fatima asked.
“Like what?” Whitney asked. She was in a T-shirt and jeans and wearing yellow rubber gloves.
“All straight-laced and shit.” Fatima was wearing sweatpants and a wife-beater with a silver bracelet around the upper part of one arm. “Never mind. Tonight’s game night,” Fatima said. “What they got for prizes?”
Steam filled the room. Whitney wiped at her forehead with the back of her arm. “How would I know?” she said.
“You worked donations last week. They use the good stuff for prizes. What’d you see?”
“Kors bags. Boss sunglasses.”
“Oh, yeah. I’m gonna be wearing those sunglasses.” Fatima danced a salsa pattern out of the kitchen.
After four loads of dishes, Reba sent Whitney to Marion’s office for her next assignment. On the way down the hall she saw out the window into the courtyard. Dreama was reading a book again. Another lady sat across from her, lips moving in a one-way conversation. Been there, Whitney thought. The door to the office was cracked. Whitney heard Fatima’s voice.
“It’s wrapped in a shirt on the shelf right next to her bed. It’s just a little knife,” Fatima said.
“Okay,” Marion said. “She’s at work until five o’clock. We’ll do a room check here in a few minutes. Have they started the children’s art therapy class yet?”
“They haven’t all gone in.”
“All right. Keep this quiet.”
Fatima followed Marion out of the office. Fatima glared at Whitney.
“Can I help you with something?” Marion asked.
“I finished the dishes. What’s next?” Whitney asked
“Go to the community room and help Sherri with the children’s art class.”
Whitney headed down the hall, thinking about paint and colored paper, and wondering who had the hidden knife. In the community room, ten children already sat or stood in their chairs. One was licking the table. Another was eating construction paper. A few mothers moved around the room. Whitney found Sherri and told her she was there to help.
Sherri looked unimpressed. “Just keep your eyes open for crayon chewers and glue sniffers. Make them say ‘please’ if they need something, and break up any fights.”
“Will do.” Whitney felt ecstatic in a mellow sort of way. She stopped a paper chewer and spoke to a crying little boy.
“What’s the matter?” she asked. She hadn’t realized it until just then, but she could still feel sadness even with a Hydro buzz. In fact, much like the extra lightheartedness she felt about normal things, she felt a more intense than usual sadness at seeing the child cry. Lisa had commented on this same feeling last week; she’d found her grandmother crying in her bedroom, saying she missed her husband, long passed. She had seen her grandmother cry before, Lisa told Whitney later, but it had never hurt quite as much.
“I miss my mom,” the boy said.
“Where’s your mom?”
“You could make something to give her when she gets here. Do you want to do that?”
The boy nodded and wiped his nose on the back of his arm. Whitney thought about the pills in her pocket as the boy began to draw a tree.
“Whitney, will you take Ashley to the restroom?” Sherri asked, pointing across the room to a girl, four or five years old, in dingy pink pajamas, who was holding her crotch with both hands.
Whitney cringed. She hoped the girl only had to pee. After telling the boy that she’d be back, she took Ashley by the hand and led her into the bathroom.
“Do you need help?” Whitney asked. She wasn’t sure of the age at which a child could manage the toilet alone.
“No. I can do it myself.”
Whitney felt in her pocket for the folded paper towel and the bumps of the pills inside. She looked at her watch. It was a little early, but she had plenty. She looked under the row of stalls to make sure no one else was in there.
“Are you doing okay in there?” she asked the girl.
“Yes. I have to concentrate.”
“Take your time.” Whitney pulled out the folded towel and opened it. She picked up one oblong shaped pill just as the door to the restroom opened. She tried to get the pills and the paper towel stuffed back in her pocket in one motion, but one pill didn’t make it. It fell just as Dreama came in. Whitney watched Dreama watch the pill land on the floor. Dreama looked at Whitney. Their reflections watched each other in the mirrors. The sound of a stream of urine started in the stall.
“I’m doing it,” the girl said.
“Good job,” Whitney said faintly.
Tell her it’s Tylenol, she thought. Tell her you have a headache. Jesus. Just pick it up. Whitney’s body didn’t follow her brain’s orders in time.
Dreama picked up the pill. In her palm, she rolled it over to the side with the numbers on it and squinted to read them. Before Whitney could say anything, Dreama popped the pill in her mouth and looked in the mirror. She leaned in to her reflection, examined the part of her hair where her roots showed, and then went into a stall just as the little girl came out.
“I’m done.” The child beamed.
“Let’s wash,” Whitney said. She turned on the water and squirted soap into the girl’s hands. She wasn’t sure where she stood with Dreama. Did Dreama have any idea what she had taken? What if Dreama took other medications? Since Dreama took one, though, she wasn’t likely to tell, right? Now Whitney only had one left for the entire evening. She considered disposing of that one in case there was trouble, but she couldn’t bear to part with it.
Dreama was out of the stall before Whitney finished drying the child’s hands.
“You know that may not be…. Do you take any medications?” Whitney asked.
Dreama looked down at the little girl, then back at Whitney. She reached out and patted Whitney’s arm and left. Whitney took Ashley back to the community room, where Sherri was holding a tissue to a child’s nose. The little boy Whitney had consoled earlier was still drawing. Whitney noticed that the tree he had been drawing had turned into a dog wearing earrings. She complimented his work and helped another child cut out several paper hearts. Marion came in to tell her that she was to go to the kitchen and help Reba with dinner. Whitney had just enough time to slip into a bathroom stall and swallow her last pill.
After working the serving line behind metal trays of chicken nuggets, green beans, baked potatoes, and vanilla pudding that Whitney wouldn’t have eaten to save her life, she sat at a table with some of the single women. She relaxed, picked at her baked potato, and kept tabs on Dreama’s behavior. The Hydro gave her just enough of a mental barrier that she felt like she was watching a fascinating play. There was paranoia in the air.
“Somebody must have told” one of the women said.
“They looked while Ezra was at work.”
“Fatima’s usually the tattletale.”
“I heard they found a knife.”
“No, it was a joint.”
“Where she gonna smoke that in here?”
“You know Ezra don’t like white people.”
“But she’s whiter than me.”
“Shoot, they lucky if all they find is a knife. I bet Trenton got an oozie stuffed between them titties.”
“What? They didn’t find no Listerine under the beds?”
Several women laughed and eyed Dreama at another table. Dreama smiled a pleasant smile and kept on eating.
“Look. She smilin’.”
“Jesus. Next she’ll be saying poetry.”
The girl next to her touched her arm. “I said, do you know anything about it?” the girl repeated.
Reba came over before Whitney could answer. “Time for dishes, Whitney. Then it’s game time.”
“What are we playing this week?” someone asked.
“Monopoly or Scrabble,” Reba said.
Whitney got up to follow Reba, but turned back to look around the room at so many women, probably at their lowest point in life, discussing their preference of board games.
Back in the community room, Marion, Reba, Sherri, and Whitney, arranged tables and chairs. At seven o’clock, Marion rounded up any adults who wanted to participate.
“Whitney, you can either play or help take care of children,” Marion said. “If you play though, you can’t win a prize.”
Whitney hadn’t considered playing. “I’ll play,” she said. “I don’t need a prize.”
“That don’t seem fair, if she don’t get no prize.” Asia, the girl Whitney had sat next to at lunch, spoke on her behalf.
“How ’bout, if she win, she can pick somebody to give the prize to,” someone said.
“If she’s willing to take that on.” Marion nodded to Whitney. “Ladies, listen up. Play fair and enjoy yourselves. The minute you start something, you’re out of the room.”
Three groups formed around Monopoly boards. Only one Scrabble board came out, and Whitney was not surprised to see Dreama sit at that table. Whitney watched her. She seemed okay, maybe a little more mellow than usual, if that were possible. Surely Dreama wouldn’t tell on her. Would they believe Dreama over her? Did they drug test the women in here? The nicely dressed lady sat at Dreama’s table. Fatima plopped down in a chair next to Whitney’s.
“Girl, I’m gonna bankrupt your ass.”
“Bring it, Mami,” Whitney said. She was growing tired of Fatima’s unwarranted aggressiveness.
Fatima sucked air in through her teeth.
“Four games, four prizes. We stop in one hour. Winners will draw for a prize,” Marion announced. She set the two Michael Kors bags and the two Hugo Boss sunglasses on the seat of a folding chair up front.
At Whitney’s board, Fatima, Ms. Trenton, Asia, and Irene, who had just shown up in the afternoon and whom, Whitney had noticed, seemed to jump at every loud noise, chose from the silver playing pieces. The game board and play money were well worn and there were only four playing pieces, so Asia pulled out one of her earrings and set it on the GO square to use as her piece. Ms. Trenton said she would be the banker. No one objected.
“You just wait, Whittles,” Fatima said. “I got a system.”
Asia started with a roll of the die, and they all got caught up in buying and selling.
“Who you going to give your prize to if you win?” Mrs. Trenton asked. “I’m guessing it ain’t Fatima.”
“She might. If she wants to keep the peace,” Fatima said.
“Ya’ll leave her alone. That’s some system you got, Fat. Buying all the cheap places. Who’d o’ guessed.” Sweet, little Asia wasn’t afraid of Fatima.
“You call me Fat one more time and I’ll put this piece in one of your cheap places.” Fatima leaned over the board. Between Fatima and Mrs. Trenton, Whitney had never seen that much cleavage in one place. Mrs. Trenton was clearly hiding a small bag in hers and she pulled out a couple of Cheetos every so often.
“Ya’ll don’t give Marion reason to come back over here and ruin this game. I want that pink bag,” Irene said.
“Look at you. First day in and got yourself a goal.” Mrs. Trenton smiled at Irene, but Whitney couldn’t tell if it was sincerity or sarcasm.
“I’ll buy the railroad.” Fatima handed Mrs. Trenton some play money.
Irene rolled the dice, landed on the Jail space, and, with a hint of a sing-song accent, let out the most beautiful string of expletives that Whitney had ever heard.
“Where are you from?” Whitney asked.
“Far away. Where you from?” Irene’s tone went flat.
“Don’t matter where she from. She’ll be here longer than I will. I’m leaving in two weeks,” Fatima said.
“How you leaving?” Asia asked.
“Snowball going to the pen soon.”
“No way. Did you press charges?”
“I didn’t have to. They got him on something else. Possession with intent to distribute.” Fatima enunciated the syllables theatrically.
“That’s his nickname. And I can’t wait ’til they learn that on the inside,” Fatima cackled.
“Oh, shit. Who owns Pacific Avenue? Not Whittles. Here, bitch, have your money.”
Whitney tried to imagine Fatima being scared of someone. She looked around the room and thought about the fact that everyone in there was trying to get away from someone. At least they knew what they were running from.
Whitney was startled by her own thought. She hadn’t considered that she was running from anything. But now that the thought had formed, she couldn’t remember the last time she hadn’t felt the need to escape. She ran through the events of the past few years in her head; parties, football games, prom, graduation. Then came the image of her brother’s leg. The day he quit wearing a bandage, he’d shown her and their parents the smooth soft skin of the leg that stopped just above where his knee had been. Her parents had exclaimed over how well it had healed. Even her brother seemed almost happy. Whitney was horrified.
“Your roll, Whittles.” Fatima poked her arm.
Asia and Whitney’s money piled up higher than the others, but Irene had more plastic houses on the board than anyone. Asia said that they couldn’t count property in the end. Fatima picked up a tattered rule book and the three of them talked at the same time.
Mrs. Trenton leaned over to Whitney. “Listen. You win, I want that green bag. All right?”
Whitney, unsure of what to say, looked down at the board. Mrs. Trenton rolled a seven.
A commotion from the Scrabble game took everyone’s attention. Marion was flipping through a dictionary.
“If she can’t say it, then she don’t get it.”
“Don’t get nasty. If it’s a word then it’s a word,” Marion said.
“She’s messing up my word. I put TRY down and got a Triple Letter Score.”
“It’s fair to add on to words,” Sherri said. “She added to QUIXO to yours. And if QUIOXTRY is a word then it counts. Just like when you turned Linda’s PANT into PANTY.”
“But everybody know what a panty is. Quixotry is bullshit.”
“Watch your mouth,” Marion said. “Listen. Quixotry. A visionary scheme, action, or thought. Derived from the fictional character, Don Quixote, whose visions led him to joust with windmills. There you go. It’s a word. A good one too.”
“Girl, you changed the dice!” Fatima shouted. The whole room turned toward Whitney’s group where Fatima had her finger in Mrs. Trenton’s face.
“I did not.”
“You changed the dice so you wouldn’t land on Park Place, ‘cause Whittles owns it.”
Whitney looked down at the die.
“I saw you,” Fatima said.
“You saw wrong.”
“Ladies,” Marion said. “Work it out, or stop playing, no prizes.”
Whitney barely clung to last of her buzz while her thoughts banged around inside her head. Mrs. Trenton had changed the die. When Marion was not here, what did she do for fun? What happened if a woman got kicked out of here? When her brother asked girls out on dates, did he tell them about his leg right then, or later? Maybe Evan was right, selling and doing weren’t all that far apart. What was the worst that could happen if Dreama did tell? More probation? A fine? Worse? She wished she had another pill.
“Just keep on playing,” Irene whispered. “Or nobody will win anything.”
Fatima looked at Whitney, so Whitney pretended to count her money.
When Marion called time, Dreama and the nicely dressed lady had lost their Scrabble game to a woman who knew a ton of four letter words. Whitney won her Monopoly game. The winners drew for their prizes. Marion handed Whitney a pair of designer sunglasses. Everyone watched as Whitney gave them to the one whose breath she could feel on her face. Fatima quit picking at her nails, slid the glasses on, and lowered them on her nose so she could peer over them with more attitude than ever. Whitney heard what she thought was a low growling sound coming from Mrs. Trenton. Across the room, Dreama’s expression was no longer mellow.
After things were packed away and everyone dispersed, Whitney went with Marion to her office.
“Come inside and sit down,” Marion said. “I’ve got to send a fax.”
“Do you ever get to go home?” Whitney asked.
Marion looked at her. “Of course. I live here Thursday through Sunday. But Monday through Wednesday, I don’t even think about this place.”
Whitney doubted that. Marion clearly cared about her job. Whitney envied that. Not the job, but the caring. She watched Marion dial a number and put the paper in the machine.
“So. Did Mrs. Trenton cheat?” Marion asked.
Whitney hesitated. “You want me to rat on people? Like Fatima does?”
“I’m not going to do anything about it,” Marion said. “It was a game. Those ladies have to work things out for themselves at some point, but I try to keep track of who’s honest and who’s not, and to what degree. It’s the only way to run a place like this. Some of the women in here have the emotional stability of children, and with good reason. I can try to rule by threat, but it’s not like I want to send someone packing. I have to do the best I can with what I’ve got. And that includes knowing personalities. You don’t have to tell me if she cheated, but don’t think badly of Fatima for being a tattletale either. She helps me, and I help her. Besides, I’ve got others more loyal than her.”
Whitney, feeling lightheaded, watched the last of the pages feed through the fax. It occurred to her how often she had seen Dreama hanging around the lobby just outside of Marion’s office. Maybe Dreama wasn’t as silent as everyone thought.
“Now if you’ll take that vacuum over there and go run it around the community room, I’ll sign the form for your probation officer and you can go.”
Whitney pushed the clunky vacuum down the hall. She passed the family side where the mothers were brushing kids’ teeth and stuffing them in pajamas. She passed the single ladies’ side where Fatima was reclining on the propped up pillows of her cot, talking to Asia and looking like a queen in those movie star sunglasses.
In the community room, Whitney plugged in the vacuum. Before she could turn it on, Dreama popped into the room. Whitney tensed. Dreama reached out and took Whitney softly by the wrist. She walked Whitney over to a wall calendar and pointed at the square for next Saturday and then at Whitney.
“Yeah, I’ll be here that day,” Whitney said.
Dreama wore pajamas pants and her usual Olson’s Hotdogs T-shirt. She pointed to her mouth, held up two fingers, and pointed to her palm. Then she repeated the motions.
Whitney stood still. Dreama nodded her head resolutely, pointed at Saturday on the calendar again, and then left the room.
Dreama wanted pills.
Whitney’s mouth felt dry. She flipped the vacuum on and the roar filled the empty room. The vacuum sucked up glitter and several gold stars from the art class, Irene’s earring, and Cheetos crumbs that had surfaced from the depths of Mrs. Trenton’s cleavage.
Dreama wanted two pills next Saturday. And after that?
Whitney vacuumed over a wet spot and shuddered. The canister rattled and coughed with dirt and hairballs, $100 bills of play money, a Scrabble square with an X on it, and a ragged, metallic green fingernail. Her mild, no-strings-attached, recreational high was gone. Whitney smelled the burning smell of a machine about to short circuit on the entanglement inside.